A Christmas Surprise
In my native Ireland, the Christmas season (back then, we were a 99.9% Catholic country, so there was no “holiday” season—just Christmas) always started on December 8.
It was an unspoken but very strict rule. No decorations, no lights, no carols until December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (and no, the numbers don't jibe).
Back then, our religious holidays and celebrations were set and celebrated by the liturgical calendar, not the retail or advertising industries.
December 8 was an official Holy Day of Obligation, which meant we had a day off from school and we were expected to attend Mass up in the village church, but unlike Sundays, the shops stayed open.
Now, although this date kicked off the Christmas season, and although it was dark and cold outside, to an impatient kid like me, December 8 felt like a non-holiday. Christmas--the proper holiday--was still days and days and days away.
Back then my family lived in a tiny, thatch-roof farmhouse at the end of a dirt road or boithrin that ran up through our fields and paddocks. Our house and farm sat in a hollow behind the village proper, giving us a distanced, bottom-up view of the backs of our village neighbors’ houses.
One December 8, I think I was eight (or perhaps seven) when, after church and our midday meal, my live-in Grandmother summoned a taxi to drive her to the town three miles away.
The house was always quieter when Grandma wasn’t there and, without the usual rush to and from school, with no evening chores or homework, the afternoon dragged.
Bored, I ventured up to our tatty little sitting room (usually for guests only) in the mad hope that, maybe this year, my mother would have started taking the tinsel and decorations from their box.
She hadn’t. As I wrote in this Christmas essay last year, especially when it came to holidays, we were a family of last-minute-ers.
But someone had lit a fire in the sitting room grate, so I switched off the light and sat in a brown leather armchair to watch the firelight and shadows chase each other along the flocked wallpaper.
Later, a set of car headlights arched against the front window.
Grandma. She was home from town and now, there'd be lots of chatter about what and who she saw and what that person said and how crowded or empty the shops were and all the news from Kit’s, her regular hairdressing salon on High Street.
That farm of ours was an isolated and lonely place, so there was nothing I loved better than reports from town--or from anywhere out there beyond our farmyard gates.
But by age 8, I was already growing secretive. I was already finding ways to hide out rather than join in.
I heard the kitchen door bang shut. I heard the burr of grown-up voices from the kitchen. Another door. Then, here came Grandma's shuffling step in the hallway. Damn. She always kept her winter coats (all black) with the fox fur collars hanging in a white closet in the sitting room. So now, here she was, coming to hang up her coat and she would discover me hiding out here and order me, at once, to join everyone in the kitchen where the range was lit and the evening programs were on T.V.
In the sitting room, she started at the sight of me sitting there in the firelight by myself. Thanks to Kit's handiwork, my grandmother's gossamer-white hair was now tinted a surreal blue-grey, and the room reeked of hair lacquer.
“I brought you something from town,” she said, switching on the overhead light and holding out a little brown-paper bag.
What was this? We weren't a family for sudden or un-earned gifts.
Chocolate? Toffees? No. This paper bag was far too big.
I opened the package to find a kiddie novel by Enid Blyton, a hugely popular British children’s author.
A book. A brand-new book that had never been owned by anyone else before me. A book. For me. And it wasn’t even Christmas yet.
Grandma hung up her coat and shuffled off back to the kitchen.
Nobody came to get me. Nobody summoned me for supper or told me it was time to get ready for bed and school tomorrow.
I switched off the light again and sat there, reading by the firelight and letting my new book transport me far, far away from that room and our house.
Instead, I joined the book's kiddie characters as we all ran and rode across a windswept moor in the south of England.
Oh, yes. This was Christmas bliss.